Sancerre Sans Straitjacket: Domaine du Nozay

Posted on Posted in Nozay, Rosenthal Wine Merchant News, RWM Contributor

Few French appellations have the brand power of Sancerre. Zippy, citrusy Sancerre coats the throats of millions of drinkers per year, many of whom don’t know that it’s a place, not a grape variety. And, as with other appellations that become household names—Chablis, Champagne, and Bordeaux, for starters—its inherent marketability disincentivizes growers to go the extra mile. Hence, an awful lot of chemically farmed, overcropped, machine-picked, yeasted, heavily filtered, early-bottled Sancerre floods a market that treats the appellation more as a commodity—with the price consciousness and risk aversion that typically accompany such a valuation—than a great terroir. Knowing that it can generally be sold on name alone as long as it doesn’t offend, Sancerre growers hew toward conservatism in general, and it requires a particularly driven vigneron to embrace risk and strive for quality above all else.

The northernmost limit of the Sancerre appellation seems an unlikely place to encounter a grandnephew of the estimable Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, but this is indeed where the indefatigable Cyril de Benoist de Gentissart plies his trade. His father Philippe purchased a 15-hectare tract of land here in the late 1960s, constructing a home and planting Sauvignon Blanc on the hillsides that surround it, and Cyril, upon assuming the mantle, has dedicated his life to producing Sancerre of uncompromising purity. Cyril speaks a mile a minute, his words seeming to play perpetual catch-up to his ever-active mind, and the permanent gleam in his slightly mischievous eyes speaks to his joyous, restless intelligence. He describes, as if still in utter awe of them himself, the loudspeakers he has installed at intervals among the vines; several times per day, they emit tonal sequences whose vibrations allegedly stimulate sap circulation within the plants.

Cyril also engages in less outré practices, however. Upon assuming control of the domaine, he converted to biodynamics—certified since the 2017 vintage—which puts him in an extreme minority in the appellation. His insistence on spontaneous fermentations also flouts Sancerre orthodoxy, as it potentially creates wines that dare to hew from the grapefruit-and-gunflint profile with which the market is most comfortable. Cyril even allows his wines to go through partial or complete malolactic fermentation (if they end up doing so without coercion), another rare approach in mainstream Sancerre. Up in his village of Saint-Gemme, the soils are not as rocky as in Chavignol or Bué, but what Cyril’s wines lack in palate-piercing minerality they more than compensate for in textural complexity, and there is an unforced, relaxed purity of expression all but absent in the majority of the appellation’s more straitjacketed examples. On a less obvious level, these evoke the lusciousness of great Chenin Blanc as much as they do the acid blast of typical Loire Sauvignon Blanc—particularly with the warm-vintage 2018 currently in stock.

The 2018 Domaine du Nozay Sancerre shows what the appellation is capable of in the hands of a risk-embracing, conscientious grower, and while it is atypical it is by no means odd; even the most casual drinker would still clearly recognize it as Sancerre. Cyril vinifies each plot of the domaine separately, combining them in a careful assemblage closer to bottling, which takes place at the end of summer following the harvest. With its palate-coating, deeply rather than sharply expressed minerality, the ’18—only our third vintage with Cyril—evokes kiwi and greengage plum, drawing one into the glass rather than screeching its Sauvignon credentials. Its partial malolactic manifests in a gently caressing, very slightly honeyed texture which still remains pert and cleanly acidic, and it finishes long yet mellow. Cyril’s personal, exploratory Sancerre provides a wonderful counterpoint to the magisterial and age-worthy examples we have imported from the Crochet family in Bué for nearly forty years, and we cannot encourage you strongly enough to experience his renderings for yourself.

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